“Can we, as I mentioned at the beginning of this paper, very tentatively suggest the possibility that we, as subjects, are not only concerned with shoring up our somatic and psychical boundaries and policing the contours of our sovereign identities? Admit the possibility that there is a jouissance in transgressing beyond one’s borders beyond the socio-Symbolic Law that insists on the cut between discrete subjectivities to a beyond-as-before, immemorial, yet affecting, space / place / time of encounter? An “event-encounter ” (Ettinger) that appeals to a certain stratum of our subjectivity on which we are subjects who have never been cleft from bodily jouissance as our corporeal and psychical borders have always, already been transgressed? And with this in mind, is it possible that we look at images that evidence, or are purported to evidence, a signifying assignation between the maternal, femininity and death? Is it possible that we, as viewing subjects, are not only condemned to be consumers and spectators who re-inscribe this scene with such cultural markings and inscriptions? If we all emerge, regardless of sex or gender, from such maternal origins, unremembered as they may be or, as Ettinger suggests, immemorial yet affecting, then what happens to us as viewers when we re-inscribe such cultural markings? What happens to the maternal subjectivity, in each and every one of us, in the staging, re-staging and re-inscription of this traumatic encounter? Can we accept our emergence into life, as non-life, as traumatic, but also as, potentially, re-traumatising when any discourse of this emergence is culturally foreclosed, or idealised as a phantasmatic return to a primal unity, or One? When our very emergence into life is condemned to be aligned on the side of death? Can we consider the possibility that there may be some kind of relief in the relaxation of one’s sovereign boundaries, of being a becoming partialised-subject, partialised-object? Can we countenance a jouissance of non-life in life, the conceptual possibility of an enjoyment, of sort, in liminal pleasures? An enjoyment in liminality?”
Out now folks. See here : http://2hamagazine.tumblr.com/post/62728467761/2ha-issue-03-suburbia-public-space-is-now
The last couple of minutes of this McGilchrist raises some interesting thoughts on the societal effect, as he see it of Left hemispheric dominance in our dealings with World.
This article was commisoned by the Visual Artists Ireland for publication in the VAI Newsheet.
“As day follows trivial day, the eye learns how to see, the ear learns how to hear, the body learns how to keep to rhythms. But the essential lies elsewhere. What is most important is to note that feelings, ideas, lifestyles and pleasures are confirmed in the everyday. Even, and above all, when exceptional activities have created them, they have to turn back towards everyday life to verify and confirm the validity of that creation. Whatever is produced or constructed in the superior realms of social practice must demonstrate its reality in the everyday, whether it be art, philosophy or politics.”
Henri Lefebvre, ‘Clearing the Ground, Johnstone’ in The Everyday: Documents of Contemporary Art, Stephen (ed), Whitechapel Gallery and MIT Press, London, 2008.
In December 2011 I was invited to create a collaborative participatory work for the community arts festival, PhizzFest 2012. The work was to function within a group show entitled ‘Creative CheckUp’, curated by Laragh Pittman. My art practice is both collaborative and participatory, and often uses conversation as a way of teasing out existential questions. The work manifests through a combination of installation, video, photography and (occasionally) ‘performanativity’. I came to art as a mature student; my primary degree was in medicine and I subsequently worked as a Dublin-based GP before retraining in art. I continue to work in general practice and (unsurprisingly) the two specialities – art and medicine – influence each other in my praxis. For me, the potential for an interdisciplinary moment of hybridity in a work is intriguing.
So, in response to Laragh’s invitation, I found myself musing about what exactly ‘creative health’ is, which led me on to the semi-spurious notion of screening for aesthetic health, a concept which might allow me to push a point of contact between art and medicine, creating a work which would sit uncomfortably somewhere between the two. Health screening is designed to ascertain and evaluate the health of a person in an attempt to assess their potential risk for ill health so it made sense to appropriate and reconfigure the medical model of history taking in health screening for a fine art setting.
One of the basic skills that medical students learn is how to take an oral history of a patient’s health. This ritualistic activity frames and grounds the patient-doctor relationship. It can be a comforting process for both patient and doctor, providing both parties with a clear sequence of conversation within which to place the myriad of symptoms ill health evokes. Typically, medical doctors organise a patient’s medical and social history into a series of subsections: Presenting complaint; past (aesthetic) medical / surgical history; family history; social history; known allergies. Having noted extensive information about the person sitting in front of them, the doctor will then move on to a physical (sensory) examination and hopefully come up with a treatment plan. I anticipated that the screening consultations would follow this well-worn path.
However, thinking about screening brought me to a brick wall. Medically, I’ve a sense of what ill health is, and thus, by implication, how to screen for it. But despite bracketing the wider philosophical debates of what constitutes aesthetics per se, I realised that I had no working definition of what an aesthetic experience is, let alone how to define aesthetic health, ill or otherwise. It can obviously be argued that attempting to define aesthetic health is a highly suspect scientific goal. Nonetheless in the spirit of a good medical case study, it became obvious that I needed a control population to provide a sense of the ‘norm’ for the project.
I therefore undertook a vox pop, asking acquaintances, friends and random strangers for single-line responses to the question “How do you define something as an aesthetic experience?” The broad range of replies appeared to have little in common with each other, apart from the frequent reference to a subjective intensity of experience. To my surprise, the vox pop suggested that the aesthetic screening consultation focus on this experiential intensity, rather than seeking a specific content be present in the experience. The shift represented a shift from quantitative to qualitative data. This realisation led me to look at research done by cognitive psychologists into peak aesthetic experiences. Their work provided a vocabulary to discuss these experiences, as aesthetic experiences tend to be singularly resistant to specificities of language.
Thus, I now had a) a model for taking an oral aesthetic history and b) a conceptual framework for aesthetic experience in all its varied forms. All that was left was the physical examination, which raised the contentious question “How necessary – if at all – are our senses for aesthetic experiences?” Given my romantic attachment to a phenomenological approach in both art and medicine, I drew up a series of simple screening tests that might facilitate a discussion on the role of sensory experience (be that necessary or not) in aesthetic experience. Thus, participants were to be offered screenings that I could perform easily, with minimal invasion of privacy, that might also be fun. Colour vision screening, taste and vibrational sense testing, among others, seemed predictable choices.
The Aesthetic Screening Clinic
I knew that this work was to be sited in a single office without natural light, nullifying concerns about visual and auditory privacy during the consultation. The show was sited in a disused TSB building, which lent itself well to creating an installation very deliberately reminiscent of a doctor’s surgery. There was a formal office desk and two chairs in the consultation room. The consultation table had needles and syringes, an aesthetic screening history form and various pieces of medical paraphernalia. To push the surreal or disorientating nature of the space a little further, the walls were dressed with blank tea paper. Once ready, the ASC was open for formal surgeries during the weeklong show. A receptionist at the desk outside the consultation room booked screening appointments in advance. Aware that at times the installation would be empty – both of participants and myself – I installed a two track audio installation to run in the space outside clinic hours. This consisted of voices competing for the listener’s attention by listing the statements provided in the vox pop and the elements of a peak aesthetic experience as defined by cognitive psychologists. Overall the installation had a low tech feel.
Appointments lasted 15 – 30mins. Wearing a white coat, I commenced the consultation by inviting participants to discuss – in aesthetic terms – past experiences, family history, presenting concerns and their allergies. The conversation then moved on to how cognitive psychologists analyse peak aesthetic moments. I then described my own experiences of these moments and encouraged participants to discuss theirs as we sought a common understanding of the issues raised by the ASCs. Participants were then offered the sensory physical screening tests mentioned above. We discussed further the role of our sensory faculties in aesthetic experiences and, by inference, aesthetic health. Finally, the consultation conversation concluded with the negotiation of an aesthetic prescription. These were written by me – the Aesthetic Screening Consultant – on the clinic’s prescription paper, but participants themselves were invited to decide what the prescription should in fact be. Naturally, each consultation was different and the conversations moved erratically back and forth depending on the thoughts, ideas or aesthetic background of participant.
Don’t Mention Ethics
A conversational work like this only exists (quite literally) when both parties commit to the conversation. This commitment creates a potential space, the qualities of which are completely dependent on the level of trust and engagement both parties bring to the work. An atmosphere of trust is a vital element to genuine exchange. Such trust demands an awareness of the ethical dilemmas arising from a conversation-based work where, potentially, highly personal experiences are shared.
It was important for me, in this work, that conversations remained undocumented and that participants left the consultation room with both the prescription we had agreed on and any notes I made during our consultation process.
The ASC process was offered seriously on my part but I was acutely aware of how the very concept of aesthetic health screening was and is spurious. The title collapses two seemingly incompatible conceptual categories: aesthetics and health. Even supposing these could be coalesced, how could it ever be possible to screen for aesthetic health when we can’t even agree on what an aesthetic experience actually is? I was acutely uncomfortable with highjacking the authority of the medical profession by suggesting that it’s possible to accurately quantify or assess aesthetic experience. For me, the overt process of aesthetic screening was set to fail and thus I hoped that the associated conversation would tease out some of the difficulties inherent to the concept.
Unsurprisingly, the conversations I had with participants discussing aesthetics of the everyday were genuinely revelatory. The clinics were heavily booked and participants were keen to talk about their understanding of aesthetics. Again and again participants openly discussed how peak aesthetic moments had played an important role in their lives. Obviously this was a self-selected group and it’s impossible to draw wider inferences from these conversations, but it became clear that, despite the prevalence of such moments in our lives, the jury remains very much out on exactly what constitutes a meaningful aesthetic experience and, perhaps, how to publicly facilitate the occurrence of such experiences.
The Aesthetic Screening Clinic was commissioned by Laragh Pittman for ‘Creative Check Up’ as part of PhizzFest 2012 (http://www.phizzfest.ie/2012/), and received the Arts Council funding via the Arts & Health strand.
The latest virtual publication from Áodan …. hot off the press. A wonderful evocation of his work. Thanks to Ken at Smithereens Press for liking it enough to publish it. A very sensible decision if ever there was one.